Del. Hubers tries to quell assessment flap

April 30, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When residents of Bowleys Quarters got a look at the state's new property assessments -- which rose for thousands of homeowners but dropped for a state delegate -- they reacted with anger and suspicion.

State tax officials conceded that they had made a mistake. And Del. Nancy Hubers denied that she and her husband, Daniel, a wealthy businessman, had sought preferential treatment for their 1.05-acre waterfront estate.

As the criticism intensified, Hubers took an extraordinary step last week, insisting that the state increase the assessment on her property, which would increase her tax bill.

The assessment flap offers a glimpse into the unsettled climate in eastern Baltimore County, a climate marked by fear and distrust as officials prepare to embark on the most ambitious redevelopment plan in county history. The first phase is expected to cost $50 million.

For months, the Huberses have have been dogged by suspicions that Daniel Hubers received preferential treatment when a choice 60-acre waterfront lot he owns was omitted from the Essex-Middle River revitalization district, meaning it would not be acquired by the county.

Then came the new assessments.

"People who worked for Nancy turned on her over this issue," said Phil Edwards, who has lived in Bowleys Quarters for 15 years and is a former head of the community improvement association. "There is distrust now, and it's all over the revitalization plan that carries with it condemnation power."

The plan calls for a waterfront village in Middle River designed to attract tourists and permanent residents. It calls for upscale marinas, restaurants and thousands of single-family homes, and will uproot dozens of businesses and displace more than 2,000 residents.

On Tuesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed legislation that gives the county the power to condemn land that would later be sold or transferred to developers. County officials say they hope land sales can be negotiated and that they won't have to use their condemnation power.

The project, pushed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, is intended to reverse decades of economic and social decline in the area.

But among the marinas and backyard piers in Bowleys Quarters and other waterfront communities, the project has been the source of rumors and tension, which residents blame on mounting worries about an uncertain future.

Nothing symbolizes the climate of uncertainty like the controversy over the Huberses' estate -- assessed at $375,620 -- which is perched on Log Point and offers panoramic views of Middle River and Chesapeake Bay.

An estimated 95,000 east-side homeowners received new tax notices late last year under the state's triennial reassessment system. The notices show values for homes and for the properties on which they sit.

Land values for homes along the waterfront rose by an average of $9,750, officials said. But the assessment on the Huberses' property remained the same, while the assessed value of their 4,000-square-foot home on Cold Spring Road dropped by $5,100.

Andrew Jones owns two abutting properties near the Huberses on Susquehanna Avenue. The assessment rose by $9,750 on one and by $10,000 on the other.

While appealing their assessments, Jones and his neighbors consulted a state Web site to compare property values. That's when they learned about the Huberses' new assessment.

"People are watchful, because everyone suspects developers and builders will be making lots of money with the revitalization," said Thomas Lehner, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association.

Eventually, news of those worries got back to the Huberses. Several days after The Sun began making inquiries about possible inequities in the valuation process, Nancy Hubers telephoned the Towson office of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation and demanded a change in her assessment. A corrected notice, boosting the assessed value of the Hubers' property by $10,000, was mailed out that afternoon, officials said. The state Web site was updated the next day.

"She was quite upset. Her taxes were reflecting negatively on her integrity because of a mistake we made in our office," said Robert Dowling, a supervisor in the Towson assessments office. "She was becoming bad news in her community."

Dowling blamed the mistake on a computer error.

Hubers, 69, said the incident left her shaken.

"It has been a cruel awakening," she said last week. "I was being tainted for merely being a public official. I am still stunned."

Public suspicion about possible preferential treatment for the Huberses extends beyond the assessment on their home. It surfaced initially in connection with the east-side development plan.

Nancy Hubers recused herself from voting on the condemnation legislation because of a potential conflict of interest: Her husband, 82, owns 60 acres of waterfront property in Middle River abutting the revitalization district, and the value of that land could rise significantly as a result of redevelopment.

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